Behind the scenes at the publishing house
I HAVE NOT DONE THIS for quite some time. Perhaps this is as good a time to do it. Here are a couple of exchanges I was engaged in recently:
SUPPORT LOCAL WRITERS
Writer: Why’ve you rejected my manuscript?
Editor: I’m afraid it’s just not good enough.
Writer: But I thought you said you support local writers and will help us get published.
Editor: So sorry, by “support local writers” we meant to say that we will only publish good local writing, not any local writing. If you believe in your work, you should rewrite it.
Writer: Wah, so much work-lah!
THE NEXT BIG THING
Mother: My 15-year-old daughter has written a fantastic novel. It’s much better that Harry Potter. She could be the next J.K. Rowling.
Editor: Another mother told me the same thing about her 15-year-old daughter the other day. What a coincidence!
Mother: She’s really good. In fact, she has written a couple of novels. I am behind her all the way. Would you like to publish her novels?
Editor: If they’re good, of course.
Mother: I’m rich, you know. I will do anything for my daughter to get published.
Editor: Then why don’t you buy a publishing house and get her published!
Mother: So you are not interested.
Editor: Why don’t you just show me her work? Don’t just talk about it! (And, seriously, we don’t need to know about your bank account!)
A PIECE OF ADVICE TO POTENTIAL MALAYSIAN WRITERS
Before submitting your work to a publisher, edit and fact-check your manuscript thoroughly. I have received manuscripts that are full of grammatical, spelling and factual errors. Also make sure you have the right number of word count. Believe it or not, I have received a manuscript for a biography (or a novel) with a total word count of 30! Yes, 30 words!
We have an overabundance of so-called writers who are just too lazy to edit (and rewrite) their own work, but they always want to know when they can launch it (and whether we could ‘package’ the manuscript in time for the launch). Could I book the hotel or restaurant now for the launch? is a constant refrain I hear. Could we, like, serve curry-puffs and onde-ondes? I just love curry-puffs and onde-ondes! Don’t you?
Is this some kind of Malaysian thing or what? (It is, believe me.)
Let’s not forget that a society is judged by the literature it produces. Publishing is a business; there’s no doubt about that. But it is also a legacy for the future.
You know, it’s so easy to get published in this country. What you don’t need is writing skills. You don’t even need basic grammar. Throw a tantrum, call up some bigshot, among other foolish antics, and you get published. Just like that. Let the editors clean up my work. And it’s never about the work; it’s always about egos, personalities, launches, seating arrangements (who sits with who), what people think, and other such stuff that matter. Never about the work.
It’s times like these that make you wonder whether publishing has really progressed in this country. It’s times like these you die again. Hell, I’ve died a thousand deaths editing bad books. Has it all been a waste of life and time? I ask myself, time and again. Most of the time I wonder whether people actually gain wisdom as they grow older. I seriously don’t think so. And education does not make one a better person.
Editors are not magicians or alchemists; there’s no sleight of hand involved in the editing process. They are not reading or correcting machines. Nobody sees them working. They labour long hours. (Your eyes are watering and you have another two hundred pages of horrid prose to clean up.) It ain’t a nine-to-five thingy. They are not practitioners of the art of public relations. And they get insulted all the time—sometimes from people you don’t expect that from. Perhaps passion can only get one so far. I do wish things would improve, but I know it won’t. Most of the typescripts I receive are not only badly written but lack content or substance; there’s not much in the way of depth or breadth or width in the writing. It’s rare that I receive one that I can sink my teeth into. I always jump with joy when a good manuscript lands on my table, something I can work with. But that’s rare.
Perhaps the better books that come along once in a blue moon make it all worthwhile, I console myself. But I seriously doubt it.